BRINE TEASERS

You don't have to be a genius to figure out the genesis of Hooters. You don't even have to read Hooters' press release or back-of-the-menu description to make an educated guess. The name pretty much says it all, doesn't it? And no, we're not talking about owls.

Hooters, the restaurant, is the brain child of men. Six Clearwater, Florida, businessmen who, in 1983, gathered on a regular basis for drinks. Night after night, sometime around the third or fourth round, the conversation probably went something like this:

"If this was our place," one guy says, looking around in disgust, "All the waitresses would be young and good-looking."

"Yeah, and they'd all have to wear short shorts," suggests a "leg" man.
"And short, clingy tee shirts," says a man with a different preference.
"And we'd sell pitchers of beer," a fourth businessman says. "And food you have to eat with your hands, like wings and steamers and crab legs." "It'd be real casual," another chimes in. "No napkins. Just a roll of paper towels on every table, and stools instead of chairs."

"Sports," says the sixth guy. "I want televised sports."
"Yeah!" The men raise their glasses in a toast. "Gotta see the game."
Well, every man's wish came true. Promoted as a purveyor of Florida seafood, Hooters is everything they dreamed of and more. It is a cheerfully casual place where young, perky waitresses wear skimpy uniforms and do things like swing a plastic hoop when they're bored. TV screens tuned to sports are everywhere you look. Good-time rock 'n' roll songs like "Hound Dog" and "Little Red Riding Hood" play in the background. Large fans whir overhead.

And, of course, the clientele is primarily men. Men in business suits and ties, men in polo shirts and denim, men in tee shirts and shorts. They come to flirt with the cute young waitresses, to enjoy the male-bonding atmosphere and to manhandle the action-oriented food. Heck, in this town, they probably come for the name alone.

The funny thing is, even though I'm a member of the wrong demographic group, I have fun at Hooters. It's relaxed, it's friendly, it's busy. There's a college basketball game on TV and neither my male dining accomplice nor I have to strain to see it. We order up a ton of seafood and eat most of it with our hands. As I crack open crab legs and peel shrimp, I can feel the frustations of the day ebbing away. Why, this food is almost cathartic!

And it's decent enough to be satisfying. I especially enjoy the jumbo crab legs, though I'm certainly no expert on the subject. The cracking and eating process is still novel for me, I've ordered them so infrequently over the years. I like the way the drawn butter provides a salty counterpoint to the sweet crab meat. The big platter of hot, steamed, ready-to-peel shrimp is my second favorite item.

I am less happy with the grouper sandwich and steamed clams. The former is your basic innocuous whitefish sandwich, although thicker, because grouper is so big. It is pleasant enough, but no big deal. "Hooters-style" steamers come smashed and broken in the bottom of a big metal bucket. They're still a little sandy--as clams are wont to be--but no hot water is provided for a clean dip, only melted butter. This drains some of my enthusiasm. I guess I prefer my steamers "Maine-style."

The side dishes we order are not exceptional, but they're okay. "Curly Q" fries aren't as appealing in person as they are in that TV commercial where the kid goes to the birthday party and the cool mom serves them. Cole slaw is tasty enough, but the beans are too sweet.

I like our young waitress. Her name is Jody. I know this because she tells us when she greets us. After she brings the drinks and takes our food order, she tests us. "You remember my name, don't you?" "Jody," I say, on cue. After she leaves, my dining accomplice, who may or may not have remembered her name, asks, "Why is that important?" I tell him I don't know. I guess I'm just a sucker for a quiz.

Jody is swinging a plastic hoop on the patio outside when we're ready for our check. I catch her eye and she comes to our table, breathless. "We do that sometimes," she says. "When somebody orders a pitcher of beer, we Hula-Hoop while we're pouring it." Suddenly, a child at a nearby table starts shrieking. His voice cuts through the noisy restaurant din. "What's that?" asks Jody, alarmed.

I gesture over my shoulder at the table. "It's that kid," I say.
Jody is concerned. "What's he doing?"
"He's screaming." "Gosh," Jody exclaims. "He sounds just like a pig."

I don't ask Jody how she knows what a pig sounds like. She has already told us she is from Wisconsin and eats cheese on nearly everything. We pay our check and leave. Outside it seems very quiet. We walk around the Arizona Center shops for a while. "Gee, I don't know," I tell my dining accomplice. "I sort of had fun at Hooters. It was relaxing."

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